Ukraine's First Lady on the Moment 'I Let Go of My Emotions' and What Husband Said as War Began

"About a week after the start of the war, I was phoning around to try to find out where my relatives were and whether they were alive. And in one moment, I realized that I didn't know if I would ever see them again," Olena Zelenska said in a new interview

Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska shed no tears for her country — not at first — when the Russians invaded at the end of February.

"At the beginning there was no time for emotions. It was necessary to take care of the children, their emotional states," the mom-of-two and wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Vogue in an interview published Friday. "So I tried to be confident, smiling, energetic, explaining to them that, yes, it is necessary to go down to the basement and this is why you cannot turn on the light."

When her kids, 17-year-old Oleksandra and 9-year-old Kyrylo, asked about seeing their dad, then plunged into leading Ukraine's resistance, Zelenska said she had a simple answer for them: "Soon."

"In those first days I hoped that we might be able to stay with him. But the president's office had become a military facility and my children and I were forbidden to stay there," Zelenska, 44, told Vogue via email. "We were ordered to move to a safe place—if, in Ukraine, it is possible to find a safe place now… Since then, we have been communicating with Volodymyr only by phone."

In time, the invasion — with thousands of casualties and counting and millions displaced as refugees — took its toll even on Zelenska's strategy of optimism.

"About a week after the start of the war, I was phoning around to try to find out where my relatives were and whether they were alive. And in one moment, I realized that I didn't know if I would ever see them again—those I love, my beloved people!" she said. "That was probably the first time I cried—the first time I let go of my emotions. I couldn't stand it."

Olena Zelenska
Olena Zelenska. GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty

In the weeks after the initial scramble of the early hours of the attack — Zelenska remembers awaking in the pre-dawn darkness to a "clunk," not realizing it was an explosion, as her husband told her, "It started" — the first lady has focused on her family, which now includes millions of her fellow countrymen and women.

"I wouldn't say there was panic," she told Vogue of that first morning of the invasion. "Confusion perhaps. "What should we do with the children?' 'Wait,' [my husband] said, 'I'll let you know. Just in case, gather essentials and documents.' And he left the house."

"We all have one great desire: to see peace," Zelenska continued. "And I, like every mother and wife, constantly worry about my husband and do everything to keep my children safe."

It is the stories of others' courage and resilience and spirit of resistance that has so heartened Zelenska, she said.

"I will always remember my acquaintances and friends, all the men and boys in military uniforms. I will always remember how brave my female friends are!" she said. "What these women—fragile and elegant in times of peace—are able to do when there is war around! Their stories inspire me. I am so proud of them. And I dream to see them again."

Since the war began, the first lady has used social media — including the app Telegram — to connect with other Ukrainians and the rest of the world and to amplify the reality of the destruction on the ground, including the children being killed.

"Graves near playgrounds. I can't even describe it," she told Vogue. "It makes me speechless. But it is necessary to look at it."

Zelenska told Vogue that she encouraged others around the world to remain engaged with what was happening in her country. While she said she acknowledged and appreciated the support from the U.S. and NATO countries, she like President Zelenskyy, 44, also called for a no-fly zone (which America believes would risk escalating the war with Russia beyond Ukraine).

"The main thing is not to get used to the war—not to turn it into statistics. Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action," she told Vogue.

Olena Zelenska
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, first lady Olena Zelenska and their two children. olenazelenska_official/Instagram

For those in Europe and elsewhere now taking in some of the millions of fleeing Ukrainians, she said, "They didn't plan on being refugees. So: Treat them as one of your own. The main thing these mothers and children dream of is to return home, to reunite their families. So help them adapt, please—home, work, school for children—until they can return."

For those who remain in Ukraine, Zelenska said, enduring the horrors of Russia's attack — even as President Vladimir Putin insists he is acting in his country's best security interest — is bolstering instead of breaking them.

"It is this personal anger and pain, which we all feel, that instantly activates the thirst to act, to resist aggression, to defend our freedom," she said. "Everyone does this the way they can: Soldiers with weapons in their hands, teachers by continuing to teach, doctors by conducting complex surgeries under attacks. All have become volunteers—artists, restaurateurs, hairdressers—as barbarians try to take over our country."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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